2013-09-19 / Local & State

Conservation Corner

Does Conservation Hinder Agriculture?
Scott Alexander

WATERSHED SPECIALIST

For more than a decade, some Fulton County landowners have been taking some cropland and/or pastureland out of production. In most cases, landowners receive a lump sum or annual payments, through federal funding, authorized as a very small piece of the Farm Bill, designated for conservation and water quality improvement.

The Farm Bill is a frustratingly large and complex piece of legislation that, approximately every five years, reshapes much of the agricultural policies, nutrition spending (food stamps) and conservation landscape in the United States. The 2008 Farm Bill authorized $289 billion dollars in spending authorized over five years. Eight percent of the funding went to subsidize crop insurance, 15 percent was authorized for crop subsidy payments to farmers, and 8 percent was aimed at conservation programs nationwide.

Two often criticized conservation programs are the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program ( CREP). These 10 to 15 year agreements offer landowners the chance to temporarily set aside farmland for the purpose of growing grasslands on formerly cropped acreage, reducing erosion and enhancing wildlife habitat; or the chance to set aside streamside or wet areas to reduce erosion and improve water quality. Other programs, utilized much less frequently, might offer a permanent easement to restore and preserve a wetland area.

Many families have found these conservation programs provide good incentive to stop planting or pasturing a steep or perennially wet area that has always been a challenge to farm or pasture. Often the costs of fencing cows out of the creek, or improving pasture fences can be paid for through a conservation program. Others have found these programs profitable ways to scale back cropped acres, but maintain some income, as they approach retirement. Still others have a strong interest in conservation and improving water quality and want to “do the right thing” for the environment.

Many folks feel these programs are preventing neighboring farmers from having access to good rental ground which could continue to be productively farmed. Ultimately that decision rests with the landowner, but it is worth noting that land must have a high potential to erode, or be adjacent to a waterway, to qualify for CRP or CREP.

Unfortunately, as usually happens when we try to work with Mother Nature, we find out things are more complex than we first thought. Despite careful language in conservation agreements calling for the landowner to guarantee most of the plantings survive and to control noxious weeds on conservation areas, landowners, and the agencies that developed the programs, often underestimated the effort, and costs, that would be needed to contain and suppress the seed bank of non-native thistles, multiflora rose, autumn olive, etc. Left unattended for several years, these invasive plants can be very difficult to control. At times, even a strong effort to eliminate these plants can come up short. Combine that with the continued arrival of more seeds through wind and bird dispersal and the task can be overwhelming. It is worth noting that landowners must control noxious weeds under state and federal laws.

Despite the problems and controversy, these conservation lands are largely succeeding in the goals of reducing erosion, improving water quality in local streams and providing habitat for native wildlife, including ground nesting birds, “good” insects and small game species.

Improvements in seeds, pest management, planting and harvesting equipment and nutrient management, are helping local farmers produce greater yields than ever before (when the weather cooperates).

Like most issues in our lives, local agriculture and conservation are influenced by factors far beyond the political borders of Fulton County. Remember to keep the big picture in mind, and gather as many facts as possible before you formulate your opinion on the benefits or suitability of these programs for your land.

Whether funded at the county, state or federal level, local resource conservation professionals would be happy to discuss these programs with you, in their efforts to help each landowner and farmer reduce negative environmental impacts, meet their legal obligations and maximize the profitability of their operation.

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